Recipient of the 2019 Henfield Prize awarded by Columbia University

2019 Columbia University School of the Arts/Writing Thesis Anthology

© 2019 Shea Sweeney

The Rodeo Queen

Short story published in print edition of Lovers & Other Strangers 07 Winter 2017


It’s been about five hours and Cassidy needs to fill up the tank but the truck she’s driving is stolen and she doesn’t have a license, so understandably she’s concerned about stopping. For every one gas station in Reno there’s probably about twenty cops, she thinks, and keeps moving toward the eastern outskirts of the city until she sees a station that’s so dilapidated she’s unsure if it’s just a fort that some kids built. There’s a small handwritten sign staked into the dry dirt that reads FREE DECK OF CARDS WITH YOUR FILL. Cassidy turns into the station, which is really just one pump and a crumbling shack. A couple of old guys are sitting against the wall of the shack chewing tobacco. She parks by the pump. One of the men slowly stands to stack himself on a pair of rickety, arthritis stricken legs and Cassidy remembers that there’s a stripe of dried blood between her nose and her lip. She tries to wipe it on her sleeve but it leaves a smeared residue on her skin. She’s rolled down her window, but the man goes to the pump and starts filling up the tank without speaking to her. He’s looking back at the other guy, still crumpled against the wall in a way that makes his legs appear to be broken. They’re talking about shooting animals.

“A female mountain lion, first bullet to the leg (makes a gesture to his hamstring), then bound and sliced alive with a scythe (sounds like he’s talking about lunch)! Anne was upset, real upset, she hates that stuff, hunting. I says Anne I hunt and that’s not hunting. I heard it’s in the news over in Salt Lake, gone national, maybe they’ll talk about it in New York City.”

It’s hard to hear the man sitting by the shack, his voice is very quiet and he doesn’t appear to have many teeth but Cassidy can make out a soft "They’ll like the story."

“All the way? Hey, all the way?” Cassidy is straining to hear the man by the shack and doesn’t immediately realize that the man pumping gas is talking to her. "No, just three gallons." He rips the nozzle out abruptly and walks around to her window. “I already put in four - $5.15.” She gives him the money, he pulls a dusty box of playing cards out of some deep pocket and hands it to her. Free deck with your fill. Her heart is beating in her temples. He’s the first person she’s made eye contact with since running out of Salinas. His are shifty blue like the interior of a massive wave, but one has a milky sheen and probably doesn’t work anymore. Cassidy wonders if he can really hunt with that eye.

"Do ya’ll have any water?" Cassidy is thirsty but the water’s more for cleaning the blood off her face. Miss Rodeo America….the man tilts his head to read the embroidered sash across her chest. “You look a lil young to be Miss Rodeo America….we don’t have water. Tobacco only. It’s better.” He opens a canister from the same deep pocket, grips a small wad with chapped fingers and hands it to her. "No, I don’t...uh, thanks….." She takes it awkwardly from his hand. For whatever reason he’s not going to walk away until she puts it in her mouth, which reminds her of waiting for after school detention to end so she can go ride her horse. The chew feels like a colony of red ants tunneling through her gums. She drives away and watches through the rearview mirror as the man hobbles toward the FREE DECK OF CARDS sign, pulls it out of the ground and begins slowly walking back to the shack.

Half a mile later Cassidy pulls over to throw up.

© 2017 Shea Sweeney 

2017 resident at The Growlery in San Francisco